If you were born in the 1980s, your world was likely shaken on October 5, 1993. This date is significant because it was the first (but certainly not the last) time that Michael Jeffrey Jordan retired from the game of basketball. If you were an 80s baby and either a Chicagoland kid or living in a city or town without an NBA affiliation, you were a Michael Jordan fan. Hell, even if you were in an NBA town, you were likely at the very least a Jordan loyalist. You’re telling me that kids in Milwaukee, Dallas, Minneapolis or Sacramento were rooting against MJ in the early 90s? No way.
I fell into category B (born in the 1980s + non-NBA city resident) and was captivated. My childhood bedroom was covered in Michael Jordan. He was a larger-than-life figure and had already broken through the “transcends sports” boundary. So when he sat in that press conference following the heinous murder of his father and announced that he was retiring, my seven-year-old self was beside himself. What in the name of B.J. Armstrong was I supposed to do now?
In retrospect it’s hard to remember how and exactly when I found a safe haven for my NBA fandom, but at some point I was introduced to Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. And for him, I’m forever indebted.
There were a lot factors contributing to the Orlando Magic’s increased popularity during this time. It certainly helped that Michael Jordan was now out of the picture, but Penny and Shaquille O’Neal were amongst the most feared one-two punches in the league at that time. They were young, excitable and just plain old fun to watch. And Shaq was also teetering on the aforementioned boundary of transcending sports. He was flat out a celebrity. And Penny was the Robin to Shaq’s Batman. He did everything – and did everything well.
Nike saw the promise in Hardaway and made major marketing investments centered around him. After all, ‘Lil Penny was one of the better characters gracing TV commercials in the 90s. And the resulting sneakers were choice. It was really the perfect storm. It was lightning in a bottle. As you may recall, the Magic had a remarkable 1994-1995 season and captured the Eastern Conference title. Also remember that MJ had already succumbed to the basketball itch and was already BACK, donning a #45 jersey and again leading the Bulls, but this really was the time for the Magic. They’d eventually lose to the short-lived kings of the NBA – the Houston Rockets – in the NBA Finals which ultimately served as the beginning of the end of the era.
With Jordan back for a full-season in 1995-96, the Bulls went balls to the wall. They won 72 games…out of 82. Ball so hard. The Magic had to face the Bulls in the playoffs and couldn’t weather the onslaught of Jordan-Pippen-Rodman-Kukoc-Kerr-Longley-Harper.
Shaq signed a monster free-agent deal with the Lakers that off-season. Penny Hardaway would never again be the same player. Michael was back. The Bulls were the law again. Penny had become an afterthought, and I legitimately feel bad about that. He offered me a lot of great memories, and served as just the thing I needed to get over my first love.
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